"The way we engage with things is not natural, it’s cultural": what we've learnt at Design Indaba

2 March 2017

For the fourth consecutive year, It’s Nice That has media partnered with Design Indaba. We will be delivering news, highlights, interviews and reaction direct from each day of the three-day conference from Cape Town. This year promises to be bigger and better than ever, with fashion designer Selly Raby Kane leading the art direction for Design Indaba’s Nightscape. The event will be live broadcast via simulcast to a number of South African cities, allowing each presentation to resonate around the country. Design Indaba will also be hosting the first-ever European Simulcast at ECAL in Lausanne, Switzerland.

With Design Indaba now well underway, we reflect on some of the highlights so far.

Marina Willer

Former Here speaker, Pentagram partner Marina Willer is one of design’s most respected names, but in her talk at Design Indaba, Marina spoke not about design but instead about another form of creativity: filmmaking. Marina told the story behind her first film Red Trees, a biographical tale of the Brazilian-born designer’s Jewish father Alfred and his father as they fled persecution in Czechoslovakia during WW2 and headed to Brazil.

“Somehow it became urgent to tell my father’s sorry,” Marina told the assembled audience. She used clips from her film to narrate the tragic story of her Father’s childhood, characterised by the antisemitic massacre at Lidice during the German occupation, just a few kilometres away from where he grew up. “As a child, I saw several people die. My reaction was to look away as it was too shocking,” Alfred says.

Marina explained that Red Trees is not purely a meditation on the past but is about looking to the future “and not making the same mistakes.” “I wanted to approach the holocaust in a different way by looking at it from the future,” Marina said. The film showed shots of Marina’s children Dylan and Alfie with her father in London Fields. “I do feel lucky to have such beautiful grandchildren,” Alfred reflects. “Things that interest me also interest them.”

After launching a Kickstarter campaign, Marina gained the backing of a group from behind Searching for Sugarman, who helped her make Red Trees into a feature-length film complete with the help of a cinematographer whose previous work includes City of God. The film will come out soon.

Ikea: Marcus Engman and Jesper Brodin

Marcus Engman and Jesper Brodin from Ikea joined a team of designers from across Africa to talk about Ikea’s first Africa collection which was masterminded with the help of Design Indaba’s Ravi Naidoo. Bringing together designers from South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, Angola, Ivory Coast and Rwanda, the 40-piece collection looks at “modern rituals and the importance they play in the home”. “The talking point for us working together was me meeting Ravi on a panel,” Marcus said of the project’s origins. “We’ve been looking at all the creativity coming out of Africa for years now, and we would like to tap into that and learn more as a company.”

With planned products including “everything from a series of padlocks to a whole housing unit”, the team of designers will be working as a collective (“all of the team work together on everything, we share the total collection”) to generate prototypes across the three days of Design Indaba in a purpose-built break out space outside the conference venue. “We want to tap into the collective brain of this place,” Jesper noted. “It’s the start of finding and working with talent from all over Africa,” Marcus agreed.

So how would the collective of designers ensure a balance between product and price point? “That’s maybe the biggest question for us when it comes to design,” the pair noted. “For us to make something beautiful but costly is a failure. We use a formula called democratic design.” Using materials and a high detailed approach to production, Ikea are able to keep “unnecessary” costs down and maintain their affordable price tags.

Regrettably for the audience though, the pair said that there are no plans for Ikea to open up shop in Africa just yet. “We’re kind of a slow company when it comes to expanding into new markets. at the moment we don’t have any plan yet, but we hope to come back to you with good news.”

Olafur Eliasson

“I’m totally excited about being in a design context,” Danish artist Olafur Eliasson told the audience as he opened his talk at Design Indaba. Speaking of the concept behind his 2003 Tate Modern installation The Weather Project, which saw an enormous sun take over the building’s vast turbine hall, Olafur asked “would it be possible to have a space in which being different was an asset?”

“It was an amplifier of a potential friendship,” he argued, showing images of people lying on the ground or chatting bathed in the glow of the artificial sun and the humidifier-generated mist, “the disagreeing on the how, and what, and why, is the amplifier of the project. Cultural institutions such as Tate Modern — maybe they are the parliaments of the future.”

“These projects are very much about using artworks to investigate how to sense my surroundings. Am I actually here? What constitutes this notion of reality?” he asked, adding that “the way we see things and the way we engage with things is not natural, it’s cultural. How we see and do things is not just in predefined conception of things… The way we see the world is actually relative: our presence is dependent on our mindset.” By creating environments which challenge viewer’s sense of perception through scale and innovative use of light and colour, Olafur told the audience of his intention to connect people.

“It’s not necessarily the spectacle of it”, he said, while showing images of his artworks including light installations, Your black horizon and Green River, it’s “exercising the inclusion that we talk about.” By creating highly visual artworks he argued, more people could engage with the work and discuss it with others. “I love things that look great,” he said. “I think there’s a certain democratic quality to it.”

Bo-Won Keum

Rhode Island School of Design graphic design student Bo-Won Keum took to the stage at Design Indaba to speak about her work with US organisation Books to Prisoners. The project donates free books to prison inmates in the US.

“Many intimates don’t have access to literature,” Bo said. Being locked up 23 to 24 hours a day “is enough to drive anyone crazy,” so “reading is a way to forget, imagine and learn.” A team of volunteers read letters sent from prisoners requesting specific texts, search a library of donated materials, select books, package them and send them to the post office, a process which Bo mentioned may sound easy, but which contained many restrictions.

“I thought that my role as a designer was to streamline this process,” Bo admitted. “But I found out really quickly that I couldn’t do these things [because of policy and legal reasons]. I also realised that efficiency wasn’t the point of this.” The Books for Prisoners service held benefits beyond providing books for prisoners. “This is more than just a service: its an exchange,” Bo said, noting the importance of the project for the community of volunteers. "You’re taking real time taking out of your life to connect with another person.”

Wanting to explain how necessary it was that this process was happening, Bo made a book. “The book is the one thing that both us and prisoners can read,” she noted. “It’s a gesture on our part to put the reader into the inmate’s shoes.”

Jabu Nadia Newman

Photographer, filmmaker and creator of the web series The Foxy Five, South African artist Jabu Nadia Newman began her talk at Design Indaba by asking the audience whether they had heard of the Bechdel test – a set of criteria designed to highlight the representation (or lack thereof…) of women in film. “It showed me what was missing,” she said.

When studying film at the University of Cape Town in 2015, Jabu became involved in the Fees Must Fall student protest. “These women were talking about things like intersectional feminism and teaching more than I’d ever learned at UCT,” Jabu said.

Drawing from the politicised women she was seeing and learning from every day, Jabu came up with the idea of The Foxy Five. Using a cast of black female characters, Jabu questioned at the representations of black women in film. There were four stereotypes of back women, she argued, slave, maid, angry black woman and sex worker or jezebel. “These are still roles that women have to play in society, so now a whole demographic is reduced to these four.”

“When black women fight for their rights, they’re just told that they’re perpetuating a stereotype,” Jabu told the audience. Her characters offered an antidote to this problem. Black Beauty “shows us that black women have a lot to be angry about,” while Jabu’s traditionally femme fatale character is replaced by a queer female character. “We wanted to see if we could not only define intersectional feminism but that we understood it,” Jabu notes. Using a film crew made up entirely of black women, every month the director and her team take a current issue and talk about it in a fictional way. “The best form of criticism is creating an alternative to what you are criticising.”

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About the Author

Bryony Stone

Bryony joined It's Nice That as Deputy Editor in August 2016, following roles at Mother, Secret Cinema, LAW, Rollacoaster and Wonderland. She later became Acting Editor at It's Nice That, before leaving in late 2018.

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